When veteran TV writer and producer Jessica Gao (“Rick and Morty”) first came into Marvel Studios to pitch about She-Hulk — i.e. Jennifer Walters, attorney at law and cousin to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — it was not for a “She-Hulk” TV show.
“The first thing I ever pitched on was for the ‘Black Widow’ movie, and I actually had She-Hulk in my pitch,” Gao tells Variety. “She was my favorite character from the comics, and I just wanted to see her in the MCU. At one point, I think it was [Marvel executive] Brad Winderbaum who said, ‘It kind of feels like you’re pitching us She-Hulk movie with Black Widow in it.'”
She laughs. “Guilty as charged, but you know what, it all worked out.”
Gao ultimately became the creator and head writer of the Disney+ series “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” starring Tatiana Maslany (an Emmy winner for “Orphan Black”) as Jennifer — alongside several other major MCU characters. Ruffalo returns as Bruce and Smart Hulk, who trains a reluctant Jennifer in the ways of Hulkitude in the premiere episode. In early episodes (Variety has seen the first four), Jennifer also takes on a surprising client: Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), aka the Abomination, one of the main villains in the 2008 Marvel Studios film “The Incredible Hulk.” (That film starred Edward Norton as Bruce, and until recently had been largely ignored by the MCU.) Other major Marvel figures — like Wong (Benedict Wong) and Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), aka Daredevil, also show up, alongside a sizable ensemble including Ginger Gonzaga, Jameela Jamil, Josh Segarra, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jon Bass.
All of it is in service to something Marvel’s never quite attempted before. While “WandaVision” used the tropes of sitcoms as a metaphor for coping with trauma, “She-Hulk” is the studio’s first outright TV comedy — that happens to star a six-foot-seven green Hulk created through complex, and expensive, performance capture CGI.
Gao talked with Variety about the false starts and last-minute changes that she and her fellow writers navigated while tackling that challenge — as well as the most surprising thing Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige told her while making the show.
So what was your initial pitch for “She-Hulk”?
My pitch for the show is pretty close to the show that you’re watching. All the kind of key foundational elements were there: Emil Blonsky/Abomination was always in the pitch. Bruce was always in the pitch. I didn’t know if I could use them. I didn’t know what their relationship was to Abomination anymore. But I thought, you know what? This is what I want — so I’ll just pitch it. Thankfully, they liked all of it. When I went in, it definitely skewed a lot more heavily towards Blonsky’s trial. In my original pitch, it was an actual trial and it spanned multiple episodes. When we got into the writers’ room, inevitably things change as you’re developing the show and as you start writing. And one thing that we all realized very slowly was none of us are that adept at writing, you know, rousing trial scenes.
So obviously, you’re a fan of the character — what runs of the “She-Hulk” comics did you draw from for the show?
John Byrne was the run that made me first fall in love with the character, and so her characterization is really heavily pulled from [that]. But I mean, honestly we cherry pick from every run, starting from even Stan Lee’s first issue. Byrne’s run, Dan Slott, Charles Soule — we picked elements from each. We might pull a villain from this one, we might pull a premise from that one, a supporting character from a third. Because Byrne was the one that really introduced the fourth wall breaking and the meta nature of everything — that, to me, is essential She-Hulk.
Jennifer breaks the fourth wall a bunch in the comics, but most people coming to the show won’t know that and might think you’re referencing stuff that came after it, like “Fleabag.” Did you discuss internally how you were going to break the fourth wall in a way that felt as unique as possible?
Oh we discussed it to death, just over and over. There were two shows that I referenced in my pitch and it was “Fleabag” and “Better Call Saul,” hopefully both for obvious reasons. I love fourth-wall breaking, and if I had my druthers, it would just be nonstop — and it really was kind of nonstop in the early phases. It was so much that Marvel was like, “OK, calm down, this is too much. She can’t just be talking to the audience the entire time.”
I might have really overdone it because at a certain point, they even asked me to do a version where there was no fourth-wall breaking, but there was still kind of a meta kind of nature to it. I really love editor’s notes in comics, and so for a span of probably several months, there was going to be editor’s notes that kind of popped up in little text boxes on the screen, and then she would actually acknowledge the editor’s box and argue with the person who was writing the notes. Then we scrapped all of that and decided OK, let’s just let her break the fourth wall: But you know, not as much.
How did you approach the tone for this show, knowing you were making a light comedy in the middle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
I knew exactly the tone that I wanted for the show from the outset. My favorite type of comedy is taking a very high concept thing, like an extraordinary being who is a Hulk, and then grounding them in the minutiae of everyday life. That’s the funniest thing to me, taking an Avenger who just yesterday saved the entire universe from destruction, but today, on a Wednesday afternoon, they have to do laundry. On the weekends, they have to go see their mom for dinner or listen to their mom bitch at them about not giving her grandchildren. They have to pay their bills and clean their kitchen.
In an early episode, “Ally McBeal” is playing on a TV at a bar. Was that a touchstone for you at all, in life or for this show?
For the writers, it actually was not. We never really talked about “Ally McBeal” or referenced her. Because I would say most of our writers’ room was a little bit on the young side to have really known that show during its heyday. But yes, people can’t help but make the comparison to “Ally McBeal.” So “Ally McBeal” playing in the bar was a choice made during post-production.
Were there any other shows, legal or otherwise, that were inspiration beyond what we’ve talked about?
The other show that we talked a lot about in the writers room was “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” That show did such a great fantastic job of covering not only a trial, but ins and outs of everything that was happening outside of the courtroom — the lives of all the people involved and the media scrutiny around it. All of that was just so well done.
How much were you brought inside the process of creating She-Hulk through visual effects to understand the complicated logistics of what it would take to film and then render?
Um, not as much as I would have liked. When we were writing the show, I don’t think anybody really knew exactly how we were going to do this CGI character. It was kind of uncharted territory — something of this scale had never been done before. It was a lot of just figuring it out as we went along. Marvel is this kind of machine. VFX is one of those things where they already have their way of doing things. The machine just gets rolling. You can try to insert yourself as much as you can, but at a certain point, you’re forced to get out of the way.
So how conscious were you of that machine in writing the She-Hulk scenes, understanding how much it would cost and what you could accomplish? What was the back and forth there?
I had produced television before, so there is always a part of my brain that’s wearing the television producer’s hat of costs, and imagining a line producer screaming at me and blaming me for their ulcer. So, going into writing this, I was very aware of that, but I also had no clue how much the CG cost. I just knew CG was expensive. From the beginning, I asked Kevin [Feige], “How much can we do? How cost-conscious should I be? Give me some guidelines.” And he said, “If I’m gonna watch a show called ‘She-Hulk,’ I want to see She-Hulk.” That kind of was the carte blanche to just write it however I wanted. And I remember distinctly thinking, “I hope we remember this conversation and the budgets come back and somebody gets mad at me for it.”
What happened when the budgets did come back? Were you asked to reshape things so you weren’t spending as much money?
Yes. Once we got into pre-production and production itself, once somebody had to sit down and start figuring out the cost of everything, it was like every week, I was told, “Can you cut more She-Hulk scenes? Can you change more She-Hulk scenes to Jen? Can she be Jen in more scenes?” There were a lot of things that then had to be changed at the last minute to go from She-Hulk to Jen. Even in post, you know, we had to cut a lot of shots by virtue just because it was She-Hulk.
Did anything else change?
The episode order was slightly different — we changed things up a little bit in post. Most of the pilot that you see was actually Episode 8. We waited until the very end of the season to really reveal her origin story.
That involves a lot of scenes of Smart Hulk training She-Hulk from the trailers. Did you feel you just needed to get there more quickly?
There were several factors leading up to the decision, but really at the end of the day, we just realized people really wanted to know that information sooner. It was hard for them to not know the origin story and then get to know this character.
Since that came up in post-production, I imagine one of the reasons why you would have those sequences at Episode 8 is that you have more time to work on the visual effects, especially since you’ve got so much CG-heavy stuff in that episode. Was that part of the VFX crunch that was happening?
Oh, yeah. I’m sure it was. Switching that up, I’m sure, made people scramble. The VFX artists just have to do an impossible task in general. You know, like, this is such a massive undertaking, and they’re already under such a time crunch.
In one episode of the show, Jennifer experiences how much more desirable she is as She-Hulk than as Jennifer. How did you want to just strike the balance between establishing She-Hulk’s strength as a massive six-foot-seven superhero, and how you wanted her to be perceived by the rest of the world?
A big theme of the show is identity. I believe that identity is not just how you view yourself and how you move through the world, but it’s also how the world perceives you and how the world treats you. Both of those things combined shape your identity and your sense of self. Jen Walters is in this unique position where she experiences both sides of that. She gets to retain her consciousness, but she can change into two completely different physical beings. The way she moves about in the world is different, and much more starkly, she gets to see in real time how differently the world treats her. It changes all of her relationships. It changes the way every single person on Earth perceives her and treats her, and she has to grapple with the idea of, I can see for reals that this person is treating me differently because of my physical body. That really does something to a person mentally and emotionally.
Bruce and Blonsky were in your initial pitch. Wong makes several appearances on the show, and we know from the trailer that Daredevil is going to appear. Were there other MCU characters that you wanted to include but couldn’t?
Oh, yeah, there were plenty, plenty, plenty. In the writers’ room, we would mine the movies and the comics for characters that we wanted to use, especially characters where we thought we could find very funny, character-specific reasons that they would be embroiled in some sort of legal issue. Certain characters really lend themselves to stuff like that. There’d be times where we’d really fall in love with our own genius, and then a certain point down the road, we’d have to ask my precious Kevin whether or not we could actually use these characters. Half the time, we couldn’t. I think the biggest bummer that we did experience was not being allowed to use any Spider-Man adjacent characters, because we had a lot of Spider-Man fans in the room.
One thing that comes up in the premiere is Jennifer repeatedly grills Bruce about whether Steve Rogers is a virgin. How did you pitch that to Kevin Feige?
We just started putting it in scripts. There used to be a season-long runner where the thing that is constantly gnawing away at Jen is this question of whether or not Steve Rogers had ever had sex. You just regularly see her like googling it, talking about it. You got the sense that she was just constantly pestering people in her life, this question that was burning away at her soul. I can’t describe to you how thrilled and shocked I was that not only was Kevin on board with answering the question, that he supplied me with the canon answer.
So Kevin definitively answered this question?
Yes, that is straight from Kevin’s golden mouth.
This interview has been edited and condensed.